Washington's new domestic partnership expansion law went into effect last week on December 3. My partner and I marked the occasion by registering as Domestic Partners with the state of Washington. We are already running into challenges.
According to the new law, we are supposed to be treated equally to married heterosexual couples under state law. Supposedly the only difference in the code is the terminology for our relationship. Straight couple's use the word marriage; gay couples use the words domestic partnerships.
Married couples generally save money on their auto insurance. Insurance companies view married people as more responsible and less likely to get into accidents. I decided I would give the new law a test run, so I called my insurance company to see if they would indeed treat us equally.
I use USAA for my auto and property insurance. They have a strong record for excellent customer service. Their rates are the best in the industry, and they have always come through for me when I needed them. When I don't use my insurance during the fiscal year, they return part of the premium. I don't know of another company that does that. Up until now, I honestly loved my insurance company.
When I called to inform USAA about my domestic partnership I expected to be treated equally as the state law dictates. I expected USAA to follow through on their stellar reputation for premium customer service. I was wrong.
USAA cherry-picked the laws they would honor. My pocket book was initially happy because USAA gave us the married couple discount. We will save $100 per year on our auto insurance. However, if I am killed in a collision, my partner would not be able to get full access to our accounts without having a power of attorney filed with USAA prior to the accident. A married heterosexual couple does not have to go through that extra step.
I had to dig to get this information over the phone. It was not readily offered to me when I called. If I did not ask the right questions, we may learn the hard way when it's too late.
I requested a written response from the company explaining their discriminatory policy. This is how they replied:
We understand your concern with the extra effort required to obtain a power of attorney. USAA is aware of the new Washington specific state laws surrounding domestic partnerships. USAA is a membership based company that considers cohabitants, domestic partners, civil union partners, and same-sex marriage spouses not eligible for membership as dependents. USAA looks to the Department of Defense and Internal Revenue code to determine this dependent designation. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
To become a member of USAA you either have to be a former service member or the decedent of a former service member who also was a member of USAA. I applaud USAA for being more progressive than the military. I'm glad they are willing to honor our relationship enough to provide the married couple discount, but I am dumbfounded that they cited both Department of Defense code (I assume they are referring to Don't Ask Don't Tell) and the IRS code to justify their selective discrimination. Neither my partner nor I are in the military. We should never be regulated by DOD code.
The IRS, of course, is another animal. Their rules for recognizing dependents are dictated by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). But again, I'm still not clear why DOMA would prevent a private member based company from treating their customers justly. USAA is not a government entity.
I spoke to an attorney to get a quote for a power of attorney. She correctly advised us to get a slew of paperwork to protect ourselves including wills, durable powers of attorney, living wills, medical directives, and so on. The total bill for the necessary documents should Joe and I choose to travel beyond the safety zone of Washington state: $1600.00. So much for my annual $100 per year savings.
In USAA's defense they do have a free power of attorney form we can fill out for our interactions with them. But this experience was a stark reminder how limited our state by state laws are. Without meaningful federal reform our state laws provide only limited protection -- protection people probably won't realize they need until they are in the midst of a personal crisis.